It's hard to remember now, but last year at this time, the Royals were something of a hip pick to make noise in the A.L. Central. Not win the division outright, really. Just "make noise." I guess that can describe a team threatening to win more than 85 games, or it can describe what happens when someone steps on a chinchilla, but in this case "making noise" means the Royals had a chance to be competitive.
They lost 90 games, the fourth straight season in which they lost 90 or more, eighth season of their last nine, and 12th of their last 16. They tend to lose 90 games or so every season. So it goes.
It's not fair to suggest their bad season was because "Royals gonna Royal" or some other tautology, though. They were supposed to have a youngish, potent offense and a rotation with some interesting pieces. But two of those interesting pieces -- Danny Duffy and Felipe Paulino -- went down to elbow injuries. Another one of those interesting pieces, Jonathan Sanchez, was interesting in the same way that the end of Requiem for a Dream was interesting. Luke Hochevar joined another recent Royal on a list that he didn't want to be on.
The idea was sound. Then baseball happened in all the wrong places. The good news is the Royals still have those young hitters. Even better news is that Wil Myers is coming up soon, and he might turn into the best hitter of all.
And if you're going to have young hitters of note, you'll need pitchers to keep you in the game. Thus, the siren call of the league-average pitcher is strong for a team like this. Just get a staff of league-average pitchers, and they'll be just fine. Maybe more than fine. The attempt at such a rotation, so far:
Guthrie's contract -- three years, $25 million -- is making some people giggle, but more than a few are making a case for it. Guthrie is an average pitcher, the argument goes. He's an innings eater. Nom nom nom. He can eat 200 innings of varying quality, and that's an underrated and valuable thing. Based off WAR, FanGraphs' estimates suggest he's being paid his proper value.
That argument is completely accurate. Just not for the Royals.
If the Royals could magically guarantee league-average goodness and innings-eating wonder from Guthrie, Santana, and Chen, they would probably -- wait for it -- make some noise in the Central. With the bullpen a strength and the offense (hopefully) on the rise, some middle-of-the-road innings-eating would be a huge boon. The pitching wouldn't be a reason they could contend, but it wouldn't be a reason they couldn't, either.
Here's what will happen, though: One of the innings-eaters will do what he's supposed to. One will do worse. One will either do much worse, or he'll be injured. There's no algorithm that comes with that guess. It was pulled straight from the nether regions. But when the best-case scenario of the entire rotation is something around "acceptable", that leaves a lot of room for "unacceptable."
Also, I'm getting paid for every time I type "innings eater" in this piece. So bear with me. I'm the Livan Hernandez of words about baseball.
Pretend there's a team in baseball. We'll call them the "Phillies." And pretend this team has four starters locked in stone -- maybe two or three of them are aces, but they're all quality. Now that's a team that can use an innings eater at the back of the rotation. The upside doesn't have to be there. The pitchers at the end of the rotation just have to be better gambles in the short term than the in-house options. The teams that aren't counting on the innings eaters are the ones that can actually use them.
But the Royals are counting on the whole lot of them to do decent things. Maybe you can sort of do that with elite pitchers, but once you get down to the Guthries of the baseball world, there's a lot more uncertainty and variance. And Guthrie is the best of the three at the top of the rotation. He's supposed to be the lock.
The alternative for the Royals was to sit on the money and give the rotation spot to a worse pitcher. These are no longer the days of "Just spend it on the draft/international market!", so it's not like they did a bad thing. If the alternative is a worse rotation and a richer ownership group, it's hard to get mad at re-signing Guthrie or trading for Santana. They're just moves devoid of a whole lot of upside. And the Royals could use some upside.
If Duffy and Paulino come back healthy and effective, or if a couple of prospects come up to do what Hochevar never could, then Guthrie will make a lot more sense. The good news is that he'll still be around! That's also the bad news. Until the Royals get better around him, it's a move that doesn't allow them to ... wait for it ... make a lot of noise. Jeremy Guthrie has value, and so does Ervin Santana. That expected value probably isn't too different from what they'll be paid for. The Royals still aren't going to contend. All of that can be true at the same time.